How Rudeness Impacts Performance in the Workplace

December 01, 2023 • By The UCI Paul Merage School of Business

In her recent research paper, “Do You Pass It On? The Effect of Perceived Incivility on Task Performance and the Performance Evaluations of Others,” published in Organization Management Journal, Professor Jone Pearce, the Paul Merage School of Business, UCI, discovered rudeness can have a significant impact on job performance, morale, and the workplace environment.

Researchers have known for some time that if you’re rude to someone in a face-to-face setting, their work performance suffers. However, according to new research from Pearce and her coauthors—Kimberly McCarthy, PhD, California State University, San Marcos; John Morton, PhD, UCI; and Sarah Lyon, PhD, University of San Diego—email rudeness creates an even greater negative result.


Electronic Impact

The original inspiration for their research came from McCarthy. As Pearce says, “She has a very technical background in Silicon Valley, so the impact of technology on interpersonal communications really interests her. So when she proposed this topic as her dissertation, I thought it sounded like something worth investigating.

“We started off by taking a look at the existing research on the impact of face-to-face rudeness. We essentially used a slight variant of that data.”


Measured Response

By looking at responses that included a rudeness condition from undergraduate students at two different universities, Pearce and McCarthy examined how email impacted the students involved. “In the study, the subjects were all together in one room with a confederate who was in on the experiment,” says Pearce. That confederate asked a simple question of the experimenter, which was then responded to in one group rudely and in another group in a more civil tone. “There were a total of four groups: two groups who received the rude response, two that received the normal response, and out of those groups, some who were communicated to by email and some face-to-face,” Pearce explains.


Reduced Productivity

In the first study, they found people who received rude communication performed more poorly. “The really interesting thing to us was that, if the rudeness came as an email, their performance on the task was significantly worse than if it came face-to-face,” says Pearce.

In the second study, under the same conditions, the groups had to watch a video of someone practicing a speech. For those who experienced rude communication prior to the evaluation, they scored the person more harshly than those who did not. “The implication is that, if your boss just came out of a meeting where they got chewed out by their boss, it’s going to reflect poorly on how they evaluate your performance,” Pearce says. “Or if, let’s say, a faculty member at UCI received a rude comment from someone and then sat down to evaluate applications for admission to the school, they’re more likely to grade more harshly. Even though these are innocent bystanders who have nothing to do with the rudeness, they may still have to suffer the consequences. It really proves the old notion that if someone is nasty to you at work, you are more likely to go home and kick the dog.”


Environmental Concerns

The implication of this research is rudeness in the workplace is never an isolated incident. “The concern is that not only will workers perform poorly—which is bad enough in itself—but they’re also going to judge other people more harshly,” says Pearce.

We’ve all heard the mantra “hurt people hurt people,” and according to this research, it’s certainly true. “The problem with email, as we know, is people think they’re more anonymous,” says Pearce. “You can be rude face-to-face and undercut it with a shrug or a smile, but with email you can’t do any of that. We also know from previous research that people tend to overinterpret email communications, and they overreact.”


Trickle Down

Because so much of corporate communications is done via email, the need to self-regulate is even greater. “The truth is people may not even be trying to be rude,” Pearce says, “but they’re rushed, or they’re frustrated about something, and it comes across as rudeness to the other person.”

The bottom line, then, seems to be that corporate environments based on rudeness can expect to produce less than those that are more encouraging and positive. Managers who are abusive to their employees are most likely being yelled at by their bosses too, and the entire organization suffers from the top to the bottom. “The implication is that if your boss is a jerk, it’s more than likely the organization that’s creating that environment,” Pearce says. “If so, you might want to look for another job because replacing that supervisor won’t fix the problem if the rudeness starts at the top.”



Pearce also suggests corporations that want to identify and eliminate rude behaviors in the workplace may want to consider asking employees about rudeness on surveys. “Instead of just asking workers if they like their job or the usual stuff,” she says, “it might be a good idea to ask them if they’ve experienced rude behavior from a customer or from a coworker or a supervisor.”


Best Results

Thanks to this research, the negative impact of rudeness on employee performance is clear. “A lot of managers believe—I think falsely—that if they’re rude and aggressive with subordinates, they’ll produce more,” Pearce says, “but this research, and several other studies, have proved this is really not the case. Being rude will actually get them to produce less and perhaps even quit eventually. Simply put, people who receive rude emails are much more likely to have lower performance on their work, but they are also more likely to evaluate the performance of others more harshly.”